There is a dominant opinion toward M. Night Shyamalan that many film lovers hold. They say, “I loved him at first when his movies were entertaining and intriguing, but he’s lost his touch.” Some critics think Shyamalan has been making the same movie — with a big twist at the end — for his whole career. And he doesn’t help matters by arrogantly inserting himself into his own movies á la Alfred Hitchcock.
Time, and a few admittedly bad movies, have allowed this sentiment to seep into the psyche of the general public to the point where it seems like Shyamalan has become a parody of who he used to be.
So if you were one of the people who booed and hissed when you saw Shyamalan’s name pop up after the trailer for “Devil,” you weren’t wrong for being cynical. You had the right to assume that “Devil” would be just another “Lady in the Water.” One more cookie-cutter attempt at “blowing your mind” courtesy of Mr. Shyamalan, the Notre Dame (all name, no substance) of directors.
However, after seeing “Devil,” it becomes clear that no one understands the criticisms of M. Night Shyamalan’s approach to filmmaking better than the man himself.
“Devil” is the best movie conceived by M. Night Shyamalan since “The Sixth Sense.” And the take-away lesson of the story is that Shyamalan is finally learning himself.
The story throws red herrings and false clues at us as we try to figure out which one of the five “bad” people in a broken elevator is the Devil responsible for killing the others. But who the Devil is ends up not being that important, because we see that every character has the ability to do terrible things.
While this may dash the hopes of viewers who don’t believe people are all that bad, it should serve as a hopeful reminder that even the worst of us has the potential to take responsibility for our past failures and overcome our lingering demons.
The film brings the best out of its makers because it presents to them a series of challenges, all of which are overcome in about 80 minutes. First, the director (John Erick Dowdle, “Quarantine”) manages to elegantly contain the bulk of the story in one broken elevator while successfully fighting the urge to cast Shyamalan as a minor character — two decisions that limit our distractions and help us focus on the story itself and not on its creators.
While the film is based on Shyamalan’s idea, someone else directed it, something we can’t say about most films with Shyamalan’s name on them. Brian Nelson (“30 Days of Night”) is credited as the screenwriter, which means that Shyamalan also delegated that creative influence over his original idea to someone else, a multi-lateral approach to filmmaking that, until now, Shyamalan hadn’t fully embraced.
The idea for “Devil” is like the child that a once overbearing Shyamalan finally allowed to go out on its own (as long as it’s home at a reasonable hour). And because he stopped strangling his ideas to death on his own, hoping for another classic, he’s finally helped make another movie that can breathe.
It is through honest, humble sacrifice (of credit and power) that M. Night Shyamalan, John Erick Dowdle and Brian Nelson wrought this new little jewel: a story about huge battles happening in very tiny spaces, and sometimes within a single person.
In that way, the M. Night critic might claim, this movie still ended up being all about him.